Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam could be in Brussels 'ready to blow himself up', says friend

Terror threat for Belgian capital has been raised to the highest level with the risk of attack 'serious and imminent'

Brussels faces a second day in security lockdown after the Belgian government raised the terror threat for the city to its highest level, warning that the risk of an attack is “serious and imminent”.  

Armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets of the Belgian capital, while the city’s underground metro services were closed, along with cinemas, shopping malls, museums and underground car parks. Local football matches and concerts were cancelled. 

The Belgian Prime Minister, Charles Michel, said the decision to raise the threat alert to four in the four-point scale was “based on quite precise information about the risk of an attack along the lines of what took place in Paris”. He spoke after chairing an emergency security meeting of his cabinet this morning. The Paris attacks left 130 people dead.

“We are talking about the threat that several individuals with arms and explosives would launch an attack, perhaps in several locations at the same time,” Mr Michel said, adding people should be alert but not panic. He declined to elaborate, but said the government would review the situation this afternoon.

Didier Reynders, the foreign minister, said that 1,000 troops were now available for patrols, double the level of a week earlier.

The move to raise the threat level came as a weapons hoard was discovered in the Brussels district of Molenbeek during the search of the home of one of three people arrested in connection with the Paris attacks. All three are now facing terror charges. The search came after EU interior and justice ministers agreed on Friday to a series of new measures on surveillance, border checks and gun control.

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The Belgian interior minister, Jan Jambon, said he wanted a register of everyone living in Molenbeek because it was not clear at present who was at each address, a process that local officials had already started.

Meanwhile, one of the friends of Salah Abdeslam, suspected of being one of the Paris attackers, reportedly said that he might be equipped with a suicide belt. Hamza Attou, one of two suspects charged this week by the Belgian authorities for allegedly helping Abdeslam return to the country after the Paris attacks, made the suggestion through his lawyer, Carine Couquelet.

Salah Abdeslam could be using an alias and disguise as he remains on the run

“According to my client, Salah was extremely agitated and may be ready to blow himself up,” Mrs Couquelet said in an interview with Belgian TV, adding that the three passengers barely talked on the journey back. “My client was very scared. He hasn’t told me about any weapons, but of a big jacket, possibly a suicide belt.”

The Belgian police issued a special telephone hotline for any information about Abdeslam – with officials believing that he could be in the Brussels area, a scenario that could have sparked the raising of the terror alert level. 

Numerous conflicting reports have emerged in recent days over his whereabouts. Two local Belgian newspapers said he had been seen in the Brussels neighbourhood of Anderlecht on Thursday. Another report said he was in the Saint-Denis apartment where the suspected Paris ringleader Abdelhamid Abaaoud was, but that he left just before the police raid on the premises on Wednesday morning that killed Abaaoud. French police have released seven of the eight people arrested when they raided the flat. 

A statement by the Belgian government’s crisis centre said its analysis showed “a serious and imminent threat that requires specific security measures as well as specific recommendations for the population”.

The government recommended that people avoid crowded places in the Brussels region, while the authorities urged people to “facilitate and respect security checks”, to avoid spreading rumours and to follow only the official information from the Belgian authorities.

While metro stations were closed, buses continued to operate, although some tram routes were affected. The metro will remain closed until this afternoon at least, the STIB/MIVB public transport authority said. 

According to my client, Salah was extremely agitated and may be ready to blow himself up

Carine Couquelet, lawyer to Hamza Attou

All football matches in the capital were cancelled, including the Belgian first division game by Brussels club Anderlecht at Lokeren, in west Flanders. Although the crisis centre urged all first and second division football games to be cancelled, the Belgian Football Association only called off those involving Brussels. Other major sporting events, including hockey and handball matches, were also cancelled, while many swimming pools were closed.

The mayor of Brussels asked cafés and restaurants in the city centre to close by 6pm tonight. Concerts were also cancelled, including one by French rocker Johnny Hallyday, as well as an English comedy night featuring Chester-born Bob Mills and Canadian Pete Johansson.

On the streets, tour guide Stephane Bruno was planning to take a group of Americans around the city, but they cancelled on advice from the US embassy. Similar advice was given by the Foreign and Commonwealth office to Britons in the city.

Elsewhere, the Turkish authorities reportedly arrested Ahmed Dahmani, a 26-year-old Belgian suspected of ties with Mr Abdeslam. Mr Dahmani is suspected of having explored areas in Paris that were targeted in the attacks. 

He was detained in the Turkish coastal city of Antalya along with two other suspected Isis militants; all three were preparing to cross into Syria. Mr Dahmani was believed to have been in contact with the Paris attackers, and arrived in Turkey last Saturday from Amsterdam.